Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Summary of the Year

The BTO recently published the national Preliminary Results for its Nest Record Scheme and the details for three of our species are summarised in the table below:

Laying Date Days
Clutch Size %
Brood Size %
Egg Stage Survival %
Chick Stage Survival %
Fledglings Survival %

Barn Owl
Tawny Owl

Table 1. Laying dates and breeding success in 2013 relative to the average for the previous five years (2008-12). Laying dates are given as the number of days earlier or later than the five-year average while productivity figures represent a percentage change relative to the five-year average.

Our own local experience is broadly in line with these national trends and the earliest egg laying date this year for Barn Owls in Mid-Cheshire was 24 April. This compares to dates of 3 March in 2012, 8 April in 2011, 2 April in 2010 and 11 March in 2009. The cold snap in March meant that many birds were unable to attain the body condition required for them to be able to breed successfully and this, along with poor prey availability, resulted in many birds electing not to breed at all  this year.

This manifested itself in the dearth of breeding Owls and Kestrels that we were able to find and many long-standing sites were simply devoid of birds which resulted in one of the least productive breeding seasons for many years.

Adults Ringed
Retraps & Recoveries
Young Ringed
Number of Broods
Average Brood  Size

Tawny Owl
Little Owl
Barn Owl

Table 2. 2013 Birds in Mid Cheshire.  Both Kestrels that were recovered were birds that were sadly found dead during the Spring cold spell and seven of the eight Barn Owls were also discovered dead; again these birds were found during the Spring. Two of these owls were first year  birds that had travelled a relatively long distances (38 and 44 km) in an attempt to establish territories of their own.

Of the birds that were retrapped eight were found in the same nest boxes as previous years which betrays the sedentary habits of the Barn Owl and only six were discovered more than 10 km from where they had originated. Among these birds was our furthest ever traveller, a female that had moved over 100 km from Anglesey.

In the hope that things pick up during 2014 we have erected 34 new Barn Owl boxes and replaced a further 6 during the year. Additionally, a further 7 Tawny Owl boxes, 10 Kestrel boxes, 2 Long-eared Owl baskets  and 16 Little Owl boxes have also been put up. 

The last Barn Owl ringed in 2013.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Record Breaker

After discovering a new ringed bird it is always interesting to find out where it has come from. Most Barn Owls are sedentary in nature and tend not too move too far from where they originate so it was a great surprise to learn of the movements of this particular bird.

I had found her in mid September incubating what proved to be the latest clutch of owls that I have ever ringed and was later able to learn from her ring number that she had originated from a brood of three owls that were ringed in July 2007 near Maltraeth on Anglesey. She had travelled 127 km from Anglesey to Cheshire which is the largest movement of any Barn Owl that I have personally come across. 

Saturday, 16 November 2013

It's Good to Put on Weight

Back at the beginning of April I came across this two year old male roosting in one of our boxes near to Antrobus and although he had managed to survive the ravages of the really cold Spring he was, unsurprisingly, decidedly underweight. Now in his third year, I found him again today roosting in the same nest box and although he had not managed to breed in 2013 he does seem to be well set for the Winter as his body weight has increased by almost 25% during the intervening period. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Autumn Sunshine

Today we were able to enjoy a gloriously sunny Autumn morning in Cheshire and I was able to get across to Daresbury to meet my friend Ray. Recent conversations between us had made him realise that he had not spotted any Little Owls about for some considerable time; but last weekend an individual was seen hunting from a fence-line along one of the fields. Consequently we have put up a couple of nest boxes to try and encourage them to stay and breed next season.

Nearby there were some signs of occupation in one of our Barn Owl boxes and a quick look inside revealed this recently fledged female. She is in the process of trying to find her own territory after leaving her natal site and she has chosen well as the habitat is rich with small mammals to sustain her through the Winter. Good habitat and a home makes for happy owls!

Altogether a great morning.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Late Birds

After all the recent rain a break in the weather this morning allowed us to return to Whitley to check upon the progress of the late brood that we discovered in September. The site has been in regular use now for a decade, but the isolated tree in the middle of the field is gradually showing signs of decay and there seems to be more dead wood than live branches. However, tell-tale signs around the nest box indicated that there were still birds present and upon opening the inspection hatch I was greeting by three large owlets and, surprisingly, mum too. 

There were two males and a female chick present, the eldest of which is about a week or so away from starting to take his first exploratory flights in the big wide world. All three birds are in good condition and should have no trouble at all in fledging successfully over the next few weeks. Together they constituted the latest brood of owlets that I have ever ringed.

It is not often that the adult birds roost through the day with youngsters of this age but this mother is still snuggling together with them and she has done a remarkable job in this most difficult of years to raise such a late but healthy brood.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Brood of Six.

Early this afternoon a farmer contacted us to say that he had some Barn Owl chicks in a box high up in one of  his barns on his farm near to Widnes.

With the welcome aid of a cherry-picker I was able to check the box with relative ease and snuggled deep inside was this brood of six owlets which were duly ringed. Yes SIX owlets in this year of relative breeding inactivity, the largest brood of the year for me. 

The birds had a good spread of ages, ranging from the eldest on the left at 45 days down to the youngest on the right at 30 days. This demonstrates the asynchronous hatching that is commonplace in broods of Barn Owls which is designed to guarantee the survival of the eldest birds sometimes at the expense of their smaller siblings. These birds are quite well developed however and at this stage all should survive through to fledging.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Quite a Mover

Today on a beautifully sunny afternoon I came across this brightly plumaged bird near to Marthall. He was roosting all alone and, judging by the amount of pellets and moulted feathers in the nest box, he has been there for quite some time. This bird has just entered his third year of life and has moved 20 km north from Church Lawton where he was ringed as a chick in 2011. Sadly this year, along with many other Barn owls, he has not managed to breed but as he is in such superb condition he should easily make it through the winter and be ready to try again in 2014.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Old Friends

Although we didn't manage to find any more breeding activity today it was still good to find this roosting pair of old friends at Delamere. The male had bred last year with a different female and it seems highly likely that she has not survived through to 2013. The unusually pale female bird has moved across from nearby Manley, where she was ringed as a chick in 2011. Both birds have been in residence for most of the year and they undoubtedly benefit from the rough grassland habitat that supports a good population of small mammals which provide a rich food resource for them.

Pale male bird

Dark backed but very pale-fronted female
Good habitat

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Moving On (Again).

In June I reported on the exploits of a particular male Barn Owl at Goostrey with the post entitled "Moving On". When I visited tonight to check upon the pair I found "Casanova" with a new partner; which is at least his third conquest of the year. He obviously has an eye for the ladies!


Latest Conquest

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

It is Good to be Wrong

After ringing what I expected to be the last brood of the year on Monday evening it was really pleasing to find another tonight at Whitley.
Mum was a bit sleepy, very understandable considering the chattering calls of three newborn owlets and two eggs which are about to hatch. These birds should be ready for ringing at the end of October which is when we would normally be checking second broods which all goes to show what a peculiar year 2013 is proving to be.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Probably the Last Brood of the Year

Frank and I returned to Moore this evening to check upon the birds that we discovered in July. Pleasingly the female bird was tucked up safely with four young owlets; some of which are pictured below. Mum is using the time that she cares for her brood to actively moult some of her flight feathers which is best done during this time of relative inactivity for her. These birds will probably be our last brood of the year unless we make a late, surprising find elsewhere.

Friday, 23 August 2013

2013: The Year so Far

The British Trust for Ornithology recently reported that there has been some really depressing news of how badly Barn Owls seem to be doing across the whole country so far this year following our unseasonably cold spring. Traditional Barn Owl "hotbeds" in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Somerset have mirrored our own experiences here in Cheshire.
If we look back to last year, March was a very warm month when temperatures rose above 20 Celsius. Consequently as the grass began to grow and the small mammals, upon which Barn Owls feed, began their own breeding cycles early. As the availability of these mammals and particularly Field Voles, the owl's favourite food, increased the Barn Owl began its own breeding to take full advantage of the available food source. Sadly, during the subsequent months, as we know, the rain set in with a vengeance. Many fields in the Cheshire countryside were flooded and the availability of this early food source began to disappear with disastrous effect. Many well developed broods of owlets began to starve to death as their parents were unable to hunt in the incessant rain and broods such as this one were discovered dead in their nest boxes. However, adult birds too began to suffer as well as they were unable to feed and desperately left territory in search of better conditions elsewhere. It is true that 2012 still represented a good breeding year overall and 215 owlets were ringed locally, but most of these birds would not live to survive their first winter.

The wet weather continued until winter but gradually dry, frosty weather set in which is the type of winter weather that owls can easily cope with. However, March 2013 was to have a brutal ending to the winter and deep snow once again hindered the ability for the owls to hunt. Many birds sought sanctuary in farmyards and close to human settlements. Reports of dead, emaciated birds (such as the one below) increased exponentially in March; due in the main to the fact that they were in places where they could easily be found. Many other birds would have gone undetected in the wider countryside. This heavy loss would decimate the breeding population for 2013.

As I began to check our traditional breeding locations it was soon very obvious that there were no owls present at many sites and where there were birds present their condition and weight left them in no fit state to start their breeding cycle. The older breeding birds had been replaced by new first year birds which had just managed to survive the perils of winter. When return visits were made to those sites where birds had been present it was apparent that many of those had simply moved on in order to try and find food to guarantee their own survival and breeding attempts would be few and far between.

Our first chick of the year, a solitary owlet was not discovered until July (I had been ringing chicks in May last year) and so far this year only six broods have been found with a combined total of 16 owlets, which includes one brood of 5 and another of 4. There are a further three sites to revisit that may be successful but the numbers of young in 2013 will represent an all-time low for us.

Despite the miserable results of 2013 which places our local Barn Owl population into a precarious position, nature does have a habit of bouncing back. As long as we continue to work with landowners to provide appropriate habitat coupled with available nest sites then there is no reason why recovery cannot begin in 2014. This makes our work both important and fundamentally rewarding.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Box Number 1000

Yesterday we put up a couple of new boxes at Peover and this particular one, which Peter is stood proudly underneath, is our 1000th box.

Friday, 16 August 2013

A Much Better Evening

Following the disappointments of Wednesday it was really pleasing to go out tonight and find two good broods of Barn Owls. I was joined by new ringer, Eileen, and it was a welcome change to discover five chicks at the first site near to Moore along with another four at Daresbury. In a year of disappointing breeding successes these are the two largest broods that we have had in 2013.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Breeding Failures

This morning we went out to check upon the progress of three active Barn owl sites in the south of the county and to hopefully ring the young. Sadly all three sites had suffered brood failures and although adult birds were present at two locations there were no youngsters to be found.

A pair of birds were ringed at the first site; a third year male along with his second year companion. She is a very pale bird with hardly any speckling whatsoever and could easily be mistaken for a male at first glance.

At the third site we found this second year male who was a tad shy and perhaps he didn't want to face the camera! All three birds are in good condition and will hopefully try to breed again next year. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

New Record

Having only an hour to spare this afternoon I decided to check upon a couple of boxes near to Comberbach. The first box contained the now customary Stock Doves but I could see that the second one contained an owl as I approached it. Care was needed not to disturb the bird before I got there and I was delighted to discover this roosting male inside the box.

He was in superb condition and was already ringed. Upon checking my notes I discovered that I had ringed him as a chick in July 2004 just a few miles away in Pickmere. As a bird in his tenth year he becomes the oldest owl that I have ever recovered; my previous best being a seven year old bird. Most Barn Owls do not live beyond five years in the wild and so he represents an amazing success story.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Everybody at Home

Male with unusually dark facial disc feathering.

Proud Mum

Earlier today Peter and I revisited one of our regular breeding sites near to Tabley. I had found both adults in the nest box at the end of May and was reasonably optimistic that they would have managed to raise young, even in this most dismal of breeding seasons.

Thankfully the birds did not disappoint us and there were two healthy youngsters in the box. Unusually with the young being present, both adults were also in the nest box; it is certainly normal for the male to be roosting elsewhere by this stage and often the female has also left to roost with him as well.

Peter with the two youngsters.

Elder female chick.

Younger brother.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Breeding Female

We found this lovely, superbly conditioned female brooding three eggs this evening near to Moore. She had been ringed as a chick in July 2011 at Great Barrow. Hopefully if food remains plentiful the chicks will be ready for ringing at the end of September.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Last One

I found this chirpy Little Owl all alone in one of our nest boxes tonight; his siblings having already made their way into the big, wide world. It won't be too long before he joins them though.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

New Barn, new box.

This is a new Little Owl box that I have put in a new barn near to Stretton. I know that the birds are on the farm and hopefully this will give them a safe place to breed next year.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Brood of Three

This lovely brood of three Barn Owls was ringed today in Crewe; the younger male on the left along with his two sisters. For the second year running the owls are benefiting from the good habitat provided by one of the local golf courses. These birds will be ready to make their first exploratory flights in about three weeks time and should then begin to delight the local golfers.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Back Home

I was able to reunite this Little Owl with mum after a well-meaning, bit mistaken, member of the public picked it up off the ground thinking that it needed rescuing. Provided the bird is not injured, it is more than capable of climbing back up a tree using its beak and claws and, more often than not, the parent birds know where the youngsters are. The same applies to young Tawny Owls, which are also prone to being found on the ground as well.
Gladly this youngster should now be able to fledge successfully now that he is back home.

Another youngster

We found our second young Barn Owl of the year last night near to Lymm. Mum is still looking after the only owlet in the nest box, indeed when there is only a solitary chick they tend to remain with them for somewhat longer that when the brood size is larger. She had been ringed as a chick herself in the Summer of 2011 about 4km away on a farm near to Dunham.
The chick was content enough just to go back to sleep during the ringing process.